Putting the Context in Context

Plus: The stimulus vs. productivity, the "anchoring effect," and more
January 7, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Most guides to good use of performance measurement say that measures should be put into context -- by comparing one city's results with another city's, for example. We'd offer a corollary to that: The context should be put into context.

Consider this: The Cleveland School District recently sent out a press release communicating the results of the recent U.S. Department of Education report card on math scores in 17 cities. Here's what it said: "The percentage of 4th grade students performing at or above the Basic level in Cleveland was higher than the percentage in Detroit."

Good news? Maybe yes, maybe no. Unmentioned was the fact that Detroit was last on the list at number 17, and Cleveland was just one spot above that.

Thanks to the excellent Cleveland-based Web site Brewed Fresh Daily for catching this.

How can you reconcile the goals of preserving jobs and increasing productivity? With the federal stimulus package in mind, we asked that question a few weeks ago, and one of the most interesting answers we received came from Ted Zaleski, director of the department of management and budget in Carroll County, Maryland.

Zaleski argues that "you can't really tie the federal stimulus decisions to a local desire for productivity. The federal government is hoping the stimulus funding keeps people employed. They are not looking for productivity gains. I think most of the jobs that are protected with the funding are not local government jobs; rather they are the contractors and vendors used by local government. We've made some use of stimulus funding and we are cutting local government jobs in huge numbers. So I guess we are still going to get more productive, but any idea that we can continue to offer the same mix of services and the same level of services as we adjust to the changing environment is wishful thinking."

Lies, damn lies and statistics. For years, in both the B&G Report and our management column in Governing, we've rallied against the frequency with which inaccurate, or misleading, statistics influence government policies.

We're hardly alone. Others in both the general press and academia have done the same thing. And yet, bad numbers seem to have a remarkably powerful life force, surviving even the most cogent evidence that they're false.

Why? The New York Times recently offered a theory that we thought was very intriguing. The Times called it the "anchoring effect," explaining that this is "the tendency to be overly influenced by any initially proposed number. People quickly become anchored to such a number, whether it makes sense or not...."

Memo from the B&G Report's Chinese correspondent: About a month ago, we praised New York City's mayor's office for encouraging the use of credit cards in taxi cabs. It turned out that the cab drivers who had opposed this move were now discovering that it was beneficial to them.

Fortunately for us, Louis Goodman, the assistant director of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, was recently on a vacation in China, and he wrote to tell us about ways that country's policies have improved the taxi cab experience. He wrote:

"I recently spent a week in Shanghai, where the taxis not only take credit cards, but also accept the same debit cards as their very modern, efficient subway system. The cards can be loaded with as much money as the user chooses. Every taxi was spotless, and the driver always provided a receipt. There was a phone number posted in every taxi for an available Chinese-English interpreter, should a rider have trouble communicating with the driver. I can't say whether that service is effective, because businesses all provided cards with addresses written out in Chinese. Drivers were always able to locate those addresses without any further communications with me, which would have been impossible, at least without calling the interpreter line. I contrast that with an experience in New York where I not only had trouble communicating with the driver, but he couldn't find the Ed Sullivan Theatre in any of his books, and my telling him it was on Broadway near Times Square was not enough information for him to locate it...."

Charles Dickens characterized the plight of the office worker as "skewered through and through with office-pens and bound hand and foot with red tape."

Sadly, the notion of red tape as a necessary evil is prevalent in state and local government. But Leisha DeHart-Davis, an associate professor in the department of public administration at the University of Kansas, notes that not all rules in public administration are burdensome. The useful ones, she writes, could be called "green tape."

In a recent article in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory , DeHart-Davis writes, "Employees can decide to follow or bend rules based on whether they see rules as good or bad. Fortunately there are steps managers can take to create good rules and help employees see rules as beneficial green tape and not wasteful red tape."

Here are the steps DeHart-Davis recommends (we've paraphrased these a bit):

1) Rules should be written down so that employees know that requirements are legitimate and not arbitrary or capricious.

2) Rules should be logical, so that employees can see how rule requirements connect with rule purposes.

3) Managers should carefully consider the level of control in a rule so that it is not overly burdensome. Excessively controlling rules can make employees feel distrusted.

4) Rules should be consistently applied when possible. Rule consistency is perceived by employees as a matter of fairness.

5) Managers should communicate rule purposes to employees so that they understand why rules are in place.

Long ago, we were severely lectured by a high-ranking official in Colorado. We had some problems with the potential ramifications of changes to the state's revenue laws (its so-called TABOR amendment). The changes had been approved by the citizens of the state. We thought they'd bring all kinds of pain on the state, eventually. The state official explained, none-too-patiently, that we clearly didn't understand the rights of the citizens to make decisions for themselves.

We never really changed our minds about that, and we didn't think we were some kind of anti-citizen zealots. Now, we've come across a new report that indicates that an endless array of ballot initiatives may have an unintentional -- and negative -- side effect. According to a study by Joshua Dyck, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Buffalo, states with many ballot initiatives may actually create an environment that fosters distrust in government.

"All the conflict and turmoil generated by these [ballot initiatives] has also put citizens in an adversarial relationship with their governments and has led them to alter their view of the political process -- namely, to question if public officials are trustworthy," Dyck said.

The fact that our daughter attends the University of Wisconsin has nothing to do with our great affection for the excellent bibliographies published by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau. We know we've mentioned them to you in the past, but we thought it was time to do so again. Topics covered in recent months are homelessness, environmental monitoring, economic recovery and, most recently, foreclosures. Click here to see why we think these are such a valuable source for good information.

Our favorite quote in a while. Many of you may be familiar with "Stein's Law," a notion articulated by the late Herbert Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Nixon Administration. But we weren't, and it seemed to have broad application to any number of issues confronting cities, counties and states today. His dictum: "Things that can't go on forever, don't."

Counting calories? About 18 months ago, New York City became the first metropolis in America to pass legislation that required chain restaurants to post information about the caloric count of menu offerings. In New York's case, the law applied to any chain with more than 15 outlets.

This sounds like a great idea. But the October 6 issue of Health Affairs features a study by Brian Elbel, Rogan Kersh, Victoria L. Brescoll and L. Beth Dixon that seems to show that providing this information only goes so far in fighting obesity. The researchers compared the way fast-food patrons behaved in low-income New York City communities and similar places in Newark, New Jersey, which has not introduced menu labeling. The results: Over a quarter of the people who saw the calorie labeling in New York said the information influenced their choices. But the actual consumption of calories didn't seem to vary from that in Newark.

Experts in public-sector budgeting generally point to three ways to balance a budget in very tough economic times: raise taxes, cut services or deliver services more efficiently.

But there are other ways, and they can be pretty embarrassing when they're exposed. According to an excellent piece in the Miami Herald , that city's auditor general, Victor Igwe, has uncovered a nest of unsavory practices, including the following:

"Miami boosted its rainy-day fund by raiding capital-improvements money it called 'unused' -- even though the money was desperately needed for construction projects.

"City administrators repeatedly used reserve funds to balance the budget, violating a rule that calls for the annual budget to be 'structurally balanced.'

"One sub-category of reserve monies is $289,510 lower than the city's internal guidelines require, and the Parks and Recreation Department exceeded its budgetary authority by $531,440

"Impact fees, meant to offset the strain that new development places on streets, roads and parks, were instead used to shore up the city's budget reserves."

Naturally, there's some debate over the details of the audit, and we don't have any independent means of entering the fray with new information. Still, if we lived in Miami, we'd be waiting for answers to the unsettling questions this audit raises.

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan